Mimicking the energy efficient C4 photosynthesis could be a solution, but we are not there yet

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Waste handling is a necessary evil. Not every bit of what we buy from shops is useful. Take fresh food for example. We separate waste matter such as vegetable skins from the useful. Some waste materials are biodegradable that we distinguish from other waste and put in compost bins. The absolute waste then goes into the council bins. All this takes our energy and time that we could better use in cooking. We don’t realise it that much in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. But our efficiency of doing useful things is reduced because of such wasteful activities.

Plants have a similar problem. Their cells have a factory to capture carbon dioxide and cook it using sunlight to make useful sugars. The factory is called chloroplast and the process is photosynthesis. The raw materials capturing machine inside the factory sometimes picks up oxygen molecules instead of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Obviously oxygen cannot be sent further down the carbon dioxide workflow to manufacture sugars. Yet it must deal with these unwanted molecules. Upon detection, oxygen molecules are therefore fed into a different workflow (called photorespiration) where they travel through other factories — perixosome and mitochondrion — to be converted into something useful, much like how we indirectly use the compostable waste. …


Cooperation needs to be celebrated more

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Richard Dawkins once admitted that his book The Selfish Gene, arguably the most influential science book after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, should better have had the title The Immortal Gene. He argued that genes carry the same information in copies for millions of years and hence are immortal. Another title that he thought would have worked equally well is The Cooperative Gene. Yet what we are stuck with is The Selfish Gene. Such is the power of title that some, particularly among those who haven’t read the book, might think that it is about selfishness. By Dawkins’ own admission the book is more about altruism. A headline works much the same way. …


Plans, toolkits and materials of life forms

I was watching a sixties movie last week. Halfway through the black-and-white classic I remembered having heard from my father’s mouth that this was an outstanding movie. I was surprised that I had that insignificant and meaningless (to me then) one sentence film review in my memory because I must have been under 10 then. The movie really was very well made. It wasn’t a popular movie then and isn’t remembered much now either. It suited my taste and style though. I asked myself if I had acquired that taste from my father. This could be my wishful thinking. Yet it always amazes me to think how that half set of genes of each of my parents eventually shaped me to this day. …


What happens to life when the body dies

“Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell”
- John Donne (1572–1631) on Death

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Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

I live in a 35 years old house. It is showing signs of ageing. Some doors do not operate as smoothly as before. Ceiling walls have layers peeling at places. Insulation is not effective anymore. The worst thing is that the house is no longer energy efficient. Something needs to be done. We discuss options. I bring up demolishing the house and building a new one. Though not the preferred option, we do not mind it either. The thought of demolition triggers a slight feeling of sadness because of memories of time spent in the house. It is our home after all. The house is inanimate. It never reciprocated our feelings. That’s probably why this parting does not affect us much. …


The big picture of megacities

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A busy intersection in Tokyo

Are Cities Worth Their Existence? This was the title of one of my shelved articles. Current crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, which mainly impacted urban population, made me revisit the article. I was fired up by a friend’s social media post highlighting the irony that stoppage of non-essential businesses had started slowing down the economy. So has the economy been running mostly on non-essential activities? That’s worrisome.

I scanned my old article to see if it still was of any relevance. It was a review of pros and cons of the idea of CBD — central business district — of a modern city. My thought process was guided by the simple premise that every human activity (including business) must do something good for survival and/or growth of mankind/nature. If it doesn’t, it’s perhaps time we stopped doing the activity. Everything we do consumes energy over and above what our bodies consume sitting idle — by simply breathing and pumping our hearts. Our energy budget after all is funded by plants and cyanobacteria who work relentlessly to produce food and oxygen for us. …


Life’s long march to uninhabitable land

We are most comfortable on land. Oceans are like alien worlds that we cross to arrive at another chunk of land. To us therefore land is the real earth that is alive. We have even put a price on every piece of land around us calling it the real estate. However, not only did life not start on the land, but the continents were entirely devoid of life forms for some seven-eighth of the time life has been on our planet. Life’s invasion of continents is a geologically recent phenomenon.

Come to think of it, water being so intimately associated with life, it makes total sense that life originated in the ocean. At one point (roughly 400–500 million years ago), life decided to come out of the oceans and onto the land. As one would expect, life’s mission to conquer land began with the coastal terrains and proceeded inland. We still have vast interiors of continents in the form of deserts and ice sheet covers that do not sustain widespread life. Life’s encroachment of continents is still far from complete. The outbacks of big countries like Canada, Russia and Australia have limited presence of plants and animals, let alone the inhospitable lands such as Antarctica and Greenland. …


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We protect ourselves by wearing clothes, sleeping inside, applying various substances on our body, following hygienic practices and taking medication. Yet these are mere additional measures. Our greatest security cover is our immunity. Because the most dreadful things that still get inside are minuscule biological entities. Viruses for instance.

Our immune system has tools to identify a biological entity as a foreign element. Basically, it knows its own molecular constituents very well and marks anything that does not match the pattern as “non-self”. Once a non-self entity is recognized, response follows and that’s when we feel the symptoms of sickness. We all have experienced this during common cold and flu. Our internal security guards are the white blood cells patrolling the streets of the body by riding on the blood plasma. …


Avoid? Am I kidding myself? Oxygen means so much to us. Yet in the larger context of biosphere, it not only is harmful, but is rather toxic to many bacteria — the dominant life form on Earth. To survive, life must avoid any toxic substance.

The earliest bacteria lived deep in the ocean floor. The Earth was free from oxygen molecules back then. Atmosphere was a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide. It was all peaceful some three billion years ago. Then some adventurous bacteria invented a machinery to harness sunlight for making stored energy. We know the process by the name of photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria were the pioneers of the technique long before plants came about. In fact plants acquired photosynthesis from the cyanobacteria via a sort of technology transfer. Photosynthesis was quite an invention. It splits water with the help of sunlight and uses hydrogen for energy generation and storage. With the help of this technological revolution cyanobacteria flourished and began to dominate the near-surface ocean. And the world had to deal with a new element — oxygen — the byproduct of the process of photosynthesis. Oxygen rose substantially in the atmosphere as a result of waste removal by cyanobacteria. That was some 2.5 billion years ago. The arrival of oxygen wasn’t quite a good news for life. Oxygen easily gives rise to some chemical entities collectively known as reactive oxygen species that are toxic to life. …


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Stuffed it up or not, we certainly have left prominent mark on the Earth. The human factor in shaping our planet on a global scale is now widely recognised. As a formal acknowledgement of this recent impact, scientists want baptising of a new geological time scale unit — Anthropocene epoch. The problem lies in the scale. A few hundred years don’t quite make up the thinnest of bars to properly stand out on a displayable chart depicting the Earth’s 4.6 billion years of history. There are some who want the entire Holocene (the official latest epoch starting 11,700 years ago) to be called Anthropocene because of the global impact of agriculture which began roughly around the same time as the Holocene. Other oft cited contributors to planet-wide impact of humans include generation of nuclear waste, plastic pollution and even domestication of chickens. Post industrial revolution impact of human activities on global climate is particularly implicated. Lovelock agrees. He puts the start date of Anthropocene at some 300 years ago when Thomas Newcomen first demonstrated the use of steam power. That’s “when humans first began to convert stored solar energy into useful work”, says Lovelock. …


Australian biosphere has recently seen the worst of times. Unprecedented number of lives has been affected. Institutions have been shaken during the holiday season. Policy makers, administrative bodies, climate change lobbies, education institutes, healthcare providers, business houses — all had to consider the catastrophe on a scale they were not prepared for. A bit of blame game is not unexpected in the circumstances.

Many point finger at (human) arsonists. Surely they exhibited inhuman behaviour during tragic times. …

About

Abhijit Deonath

Writer, scientist, filmmaker, executive… basically a creative explorer; contact abhijit AT abhijitdeonath DOT com

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